Craft E-mails that Boost Employee Engagement

Managers need to take the time to write e-mails to direct reports that grab their attention, address their needs, and offer clear direction.

Whatever supervisors are doing to engage their staffs apparently isn’t working. A report last year by Gallup revealed that 87 percent of workers weren’t engaged in their jobs. That hurts organizational performance to the tune of $7 trillion in lost productivity and is primarily due to the actions of managers, according to Gandhi (2018)

A big part of the problem is poor communication from managers to direct reports—especially in writing, as face-to-face meetings and phone conversations give way to e-mail messages. If you’re a supervisor, treat every e-mail to a subordinate as an opportunity to demonstrate support and ultimately produce better outcomes for the organization. Here are three strategies for writing e-mails that drive employee engagement:

1. Focus attention with compelling subject lines

Get a head start on motivating the individual to accomplish a key task or goal. Compare these two subject lines:


Upcoming XY project 

Targets opportunity: 

XY project: Your chance to shine

While the first subject line informs the direct report of the project, the second one helps inspire the individual—even before he or she reads the text of the message. 

2. Remember their WIIFMs

If you want employees to make the extra effort, address their WIIFM (What’s in it for me?). Let’s look at two approaches to encouraging a direct report—a team leader—to become a mentor.

Doesn’t address person’s needs:

You’ve been identified as a team leader who can serve as a mentor for newly promoted associates. This will enable them to gain more confidence and produce better results. We invite you to register for this voluntary mentorship program and help our division develop dynamic associates!

This e-mail doesn’t engage the reader because it only focuses on what’s important to associates and the division—neglecting the needs of a team leader.

Directly addresses WIIFMs:

As a team leader, you’ve made significant contributions to this division. We want to offer you the opportunity to build your leadership skills by volunteering as a mentor for newly promoted associates. On top of the satisfaction from helping these individuals improve their skills, you can enhance your career. A recent study revealed that mentors are six times more likely to be promoted than those who don’t mentor. We invite you to enroll in this exciting program!

Stating what’s important to a team leader—building leadership skills and enhancing their career—engages the person and increases the likelihood that he or she will sign up to be a mentor. 

3. Be specific with criticism

When you need to address a direct report’s mistakes, don’t point to broad inadequacies in his or her overall performance (that is better handled in a face-to-face meeting). Instead, specify the errors and suggest corrective action. Compare these two e-mails criticizing a direct report’s lack of attention to a customer:

Too broad and harsh:

Zoya Batra of XC Partners says you haven’t been paying enough attention to her inquiries. We’ll lose this client if you continue to be so nonresponsive. I need to see an immediate improvement in your customer service skills.

By painting your direct report as nonresponsive and not offering suggestions for improvement, you may demoralize—and disengage—this individual.

Specific with clear direction:

Zoya Batra of XC Partners is annoyed that you haven’t returned three of her e-mails this week about problems accessing the application we installed last month. Remember that our policy is to return all client e-mails within three hours. XC Partners is one of our most valued clients, and we can’t afford to lose them. Please e-mail Zoya by 11 a.m. to arrange a call to discuss how you’ll resolve this issue.

This e-mail specifies the employee’s error, explains the importance of satisfying this important client, and offers a concrete next step.

Especially in this tight labor market, you need to communicate with employees in ways that encourage them to embrace their jobs. Take the time to write e-mails to direct reports that grab attention, address their needs, and offer clear direction.

Corporate writing instructor and author of “10 Steps to Successful Business Writing” (2nd edition) Jack E. Appleman, APR, CBC, is driven by the belief that working professionals can dramatically improve their writing by following key techniques. The principal of Successful Business Writing, Appleman also is studying for his Ph.D. at UAlbany, where he is investigating the link between business writing and employee engagement. Contact him at: